Friday, June 21, 2024

‘Christmas on the Square’ Makes The Spirit Bright

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Dolly Parton’s Christmas on the Square is the type of cynicism-free festival of love and faith you’d expect from the legendary singer. A cross between A Christmas Carol and Touched By An Angel. Its aim is only to please and spread Christmas cheer. But in the end, it feels more like a filmed play one might see in Branson, Missouri rather than the Hallmark Channel.

Still, Debbie Allen’s Christmas on the Square is a thing unto itself. Allen takes the absurdities that would derail a lesser talent and plays it straight. She never for a moment pretends that this is anything other than a chance to see Christine Baranski and Dolly Parton in a Christmas movie.

Parton herself has long leaned into her outlandish persona, oftentimes to the point, of blurring the lines between Dolly Parton the singer, and Dolly Parton the woman. Fitting then that the town of Fullerville, Kansas feels less like a city and more like a town one finds in a snow globe, but Allen understands that this is community theater about community and so doesn’t get bogged down in set design. A reflection of Parton herself, exaggeration mixed with a small-town sensibility.

The script by Maria S. Schlatter, however, tries to stretch its thin premise too tight. Baranski plays Regina Fuller, a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, a covetous old sinner. She swoops down from her house upon a hill and tells the townsfolk that she has sold the land to a developing company. She is evicting the town and the deadline to be gone is Christmas Eve. That Allen refrains from having an organ play dramatic music is to be somewhat commended.

Baranski is of course, perfect. She has long excelled at playing the venal, crude, often drunk, licentious old broad. Here she’s more villain than a boozy best friend, but she nails it with her consummate talent and zest for playing the unlikable. Like all Scrooges, she is a lonely, bitter soul who is haunted by past loves and mistakes.

But instead of three Christmas spirits, she is visited by an angel played by, who else, Dolly Parton. As mentioned earlier there has always been something larger than life about Parton so being asked to think of her as ethereal is hardly the biggest stretch of the imagination. Schlatter’s script doesn’t give her a name, which is fine, since Dolly, while integral, is not the engine of the movie.

As cartoonish as Allen makes much of Christmas in the Square, it is somehow believable. Maybe because in our own time we’ve come to realize that the wealthy and the powerful don’t give a fig about us. We are but cogs that keep the economy going and if we happen to die because of a raging pandemic or poverty, then so be it. They can just write off our deaths as a tax break and pass the savings onto their bonuses.

Baranski, thankfully, plays Regina as a mustache-twirling cackling “b” word with a capital “B” as only she can play it. But the greatest leap of suspension of disbelief Schlatter and Allen ask us to make, is to believe that someone as rich as Regina could be made to give a damn without the threat of legal action. But that’s where it’s important to remember Dickens, which is to say the overflowing faith in humanity.

Christmas on the Square, in a weird way, reminds me of the Johnny Cash vehicle, Robert Elfstrom’s Gospel Road and much like Allen Elfstrom is at the mercy of a star who earnestly believes the faith and love they are espousing. It’s so deeply sincere it feels mean to try and jab at it with a cynic’s wit.

Though I must confess to giving in to my cynicism a few times throughout the movie. One of the musical numbers “The Wickedest Witch of the Middle” allows the citizens of Fullerville to lament the cruelty of Regina via song and dance. One citizen cries out, “She’s so damn mean!” “Hey, no cussing in a church house!”

Having grown up in a church I can say that yes, there are many words you can’t say in church. “Damn,” however, is not one of them. If anything it’s the one word they could use less in church houses.

Along with the line, “It’s written in a Bible, so you know it must be true,” I couldn’t help but guffaw. The line doesn’t refer to scripture but to a note scribbled in the front of a Bible, suggesting no one would dare use a Bible as a mere prop. 

It’s easy to jab and mock at true believers. Comedians do it all the time. But it would be a mistake to think that Christmas on the Square doesn’t know what it’s doing or what it’s preaching.

After showing up to a town meeting where Pastor Christian (Josh Segarra) has started a resistance movement, Regina heads to a bar. Inside, she meets a little girl tending bar, Violet (Selah Kimbro Jones). Jones comes off a tad too precocious at times, but frankly, the idea of a child dispensing whiskey and wisdom is just the type of surrealism that tickles this old sinner. Regina asks how did a little girl become so wise she shrugs. “I’m growing up in the back of a bar with access to the internet. Where do you think?”

As adaptations go, Tiny Tim as a young Black girl who bartends has to be one of my favorite choices.

Regina, pleased to have met someone in this town who doesn’t annoy her, orders a drink. Violet and Regina’s talk is remarkable if only because it’s one of the few genuine conversations that’s allowed to happen in Christmas on the Square. Lines are exchanged throughout the movie, and there are one-liners and quips galore, but Baranski and Jones have an honest to goodness emotional exchange that brought me close to tears.

Violet doesn’t know who Regina is and Regina is in no hurry to tell her. She then tells Regina about her father and how he hates the Wickedest Witch. He blames Regina for killing her mother. Regina is understandably floored by this accusation. 

The littlest bartender explains that Regina closed down the local pharmacy. So, a few months after Violet was born and her mother needed medicine, she had to drive twenty miles outside of town to get it. On the way back she was caught in a snowstorm, crashed, and died.

Violet then tells Regina a secret. She doesn’t blame The Wickedest Witch for killing her mother. “I was the one who had the fever,” Violet explains. As awful as Regina is she’s not so bad that she can sit and listen to a child blame herself for the death of her mother.

Baranski’s face is a landscape of emotions. She sits stunned. It’s one of the few times Schalatter’s script restrains itself, Regina merely says, “No,” repeatedly. Allen allows Baranski the room to act out different variations of “No”, and for a brief moment Baranski and Jones have drowned out all the other saccharin made for television artificiality and arrived at a simple human tragedy.

It is a heartbreaking scene that stands above the rest of the melodramatic overstuffed plot shoved into the runtime. And I do mean overstuffed. In addition to rehabilitating Regina, poor Dolly has to contend with an Angel in training who is posing as Regina’s Personal Assistant Felicity (Jeanine Mason) to get her wings.

I haven’t even mentioned Treat Williams, Regina’s old high school sweetheart, Carl, who now runs the local general store. Williams is all but wasted as Regina and Carl’s relationship always feels oddly ignored, even though at times, it’s treated as integral to the plot. But they never really argue or flirt that much. They just go from angry, to morose, to the final musical number where Carl is shrugging and all is forgiven.

Towards the final stretch, Schlatter and Allen drop an entire season of One Tree Hill into a few minutes span. Follow me on this: back in high school Regina and Carl were dating. 

One night, at a school dance, Regina spies Carl by the coat rack showing off a ring to some strange girl. Heartbroken she dances with a strange boy she meets at the dance. Now pregnant with his baby she is hidden away by her father for fear of the shame and exile she would face from the good people of Fullerville. She has the baby in secret, her father then takes the baby and gives it away, without asking or telling Regina what happened to the boy.

Regina then finds an old bible at the base of a street lantern that her father loved and in it is written that her son was given up for adoption and his name is Father Chrisitan. That’s a lot to jam into your third act, especially when it’s revealed Regina and her father didn’t get along but she just forgives the man now that he’s dead and moves on.

But here’s the thing, there’s more. I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud on Regina’s brain scan OR that Pastor Christian and his wife are struggling to conceive. Mainly because none of it really matters.

Yet, as I said earlier, Christmas on the Square much like One Tree Hill understands exactly what it is. Though I prefer the One Tree Hill scene where the man in desperate need of a heart transplant sees his donor’s heart arrive only to see it dropped and carried away by a stray dog inside the hospital, my point still stands. It knows it’s patently absurd, it’s a Christmas special with Dolly Parton and Christine Baranski for Pete’s sake. 

I don’t half wonder if the child tending bar without a liquor license didn’t tip you off is Allen and Schlatter showing their hand. A way to let us know to sit back, it only gets more wild from here.

That it has even one moment that is legitimately touching and moving is a miracle. Granted that it’s also a musical with Dolly Parton that’s not all that great unless Dolly or Christine is singing, is admittedly a Christmas tragedy. It’s, sadly, also somewhat predictable. 

Christmas on the Square depends on your love of Dolly. I wish it was just a little bit better and that Baranski and Parton had more scenes together. But, honestly, its utter lack of cynicism was kind of nice. It’s hard to begrudge Dolly wanting to do anything; much less a Christmas Special.

Image courtesy of Nerflix

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